09 Brahms DoubleBrahms – Double Concerto; Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet; Liszt – Les Preludes
Lisa Batiashvili; Gautier Capuçon; Staatskapelle Dresden; Christian Thielemann
C Major 757108 (naxosdirect.com/search/757108)

Christian Thielemann had already established himself as a card-carrying, man-about-Brahms when he recorded the complete symphonies, the piano concertos with Pollini and the violin concerto with Batiashvili; DG was still attempting to develop a successor to the late Herbert von Karajan. 

Of course this concert with the Dresden Staatskapelle could be nothing less than a memorable event given the incomparable technique and sonorities of the soloists, violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon, with Thielemann in command. This Blu-ray has had lots of play in the past weeks as I just had to hear, just one more time, my very favourite Brahms concerto. The encore, Il Zingaresca: Allegro giocoso, is a pleasing interplay between violin and cello by Schulhoff. The Tchaikovsky and Liszt war horses each enjoy a well-controlled, commanding performance,

10 Nicoara BusoniBusoni – The Six Sonatinas
Victor Nicoara
Hanssler Classic HC20086 (naxosdirect.com/search/hc20086)

Victor Nicoara, a bona fide exponent of the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, joins an increasing number of musicians determined to familiarize audiences with the Italian composer’s catalogue, bringing them “closer to an emotional understanding of… neglected masterpieces.” As such, Nicoara has fashioned an aesthetically pleasing album featuring Busoni’s Six Sonatinas – out of chronological order – set amongst smaller pieces. It is immediately apparent that Nicoara has long been devoted to Busoni’s art and brings a depth of interpretation and impressive conviction to his performance. The pianist displays attributes of expression not perennially associated with Busoni: a tenderness of line and sense of satirical gesture (with playfulness); a dreamy, almost absent-minded notion of soundscape, a rational lingua franca of harmony. (Busoni’s harmonic language can sometimes seem out of reach for many listeners.)

This is a disc to be thoroughly enjoyed, varied in scope with intimations of dusted-off treasure. The musical gemstones Nicoara brings to our ears from vaults below are not unknown, they’re just rarely heard and must therefore be reclaimed and re-appreciated in the natural light of day. Here is the conceit of Nicoara’s newest recording and he succeeds in its conveyance, admirably.

Outside of the sonatinas, a more novel highlight is the Nuit de Noël, BV 251. Without knowing, one might guess this music to be written by Debussy, Grieg or even a proponent of the Romantic English school. Finally, Nicoara’s own, Quasi Sonatina, illuminates the nooks and crannies of our aforementioned museum finds in “an attempt… to distill the spirit and compositional procedures of the works recorded…”  As listeners, we revel in his sensitivity for the material: material he plays with an earnest, even humble, brand of pianistic expertise.

11 Mahler 7 PetrenkoMahler – Symphony No.7
Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Kirill Petrenko
Bayerische Stattoper BSOrec0001 (naxosdirect.com/search/bsorec0001)

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester, the resident orchestra of the renowned Bavarian State Opera, launches a new label featuring their purely orchestral performances with this 2018 live performance under their former music director Kirill Petrenko, recently appointed to succeed Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. The reclusive and modest Petrenko has very few recordings to his credit to date; that he would choose to heighten his profile with this most neglected though utterly fascinating example of Mahler’s symphonies is certainly a provocative move. 

In general we have here a quite satisfying result, revealing an excellent orchestra at the top of its game. The opening bars of this five-moment symphony seemed a bit underwhelming to me at first, though it eventually became evident that Petrenko is playing the long game as the interpretation grew increasingly incandescent throughout the remainder of the movement. A certain Apollonian reticence is also evident in the flanking pair of Nachtmusik movements; the echoing horn calls that open the second movement for example are, unusually, strictly in tempo, while the expressive tempo modifications in the archly sentimental fourth movement are almost non-committal in their fleetness, though both movements are otherwise sonically luxurious and expertly balanced. He does however display a commanding hand throughout the psychedelic central Scherzo and truly comes into his own in the dense polyphony of the grandiloquent Finale which zips along jubilantly. 

Though it’s certainly not the finest recording of this work available (I would recommend Bernstein/NY or Abbado/Lucerne) it nevertheless shows great promise that Petrenko interprets this demanding work with such alacrity. Stay tuned!

12 QuestQuest
Elisabeth Remy Johnson
Albany Records TROY1863 (albanyrecords.com)

This compelling new recording from world-renowned principal harpist (Atlanta Symphony) Elisabeth Remy Johnson, is a magnificent celebration of not only the harp itself, but of 12 radiant female composers. Both historic and contemporary artists are represented here by way of Johnson’s transcriptions of venerable piano works by Cécile Chaminade (Aubade – 1911), Amy Beach (A Hermit Thrush at Morn – 1921), Mel Bonis (Cinq Morceaux – 1894 to 1927), Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (Mélodie – 1846), Clara Wieck Schumann (Romanze – 1853) and Lili Boulanger (D’un vieux jardin – 1914). Contemporary contributers to this superb collection include Australian flutist/composer Johanna Selleck, British composer Freya Waley-Cohen, British violist/composer Sally Beamish and Canadian composer Kati Agócs.

The title track is by contemporary Iranian-American pianist/composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh. Written in 1992, the composition reflects Nourbakhsh’s thoughts and feelings as she embarked on her “quest” of becoming a composer. Delicate, gossamer and provocative, this world-premiere recording and transcription for solo harp is nothing short of breathtaking. Aubade has a whimsical aspect, made even more magical when performed on harp and A Hermit Thrush at Morn embodies contemporary motifs in classical music that were just beginning to come into focus in the 1920s. Of special beauty and elegance is the five-movement Cinq Morceaux, as is D’un vieux jardin where the listener experiences a stunning, Parisian garden gently emerging out of the mist.

The contemporary pieces presented here are no less notable, particularly Agócs’ Every Lover is a Warrior and Waley-Cohen’s Skye. This is a recording to be savoured, just like all of the works of the brilliant female artists who have contributed to Johnson’s laudible recording, infused with her incredible skill and taste.

Listen to 'Quest' Now in the Listening Room

13 Matthew LarkinMatthew Larkin Organist – Casavant Opus 550
Matthew Larkin
ATMA ACD2 2857 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Not only is the pipe organ one of the world’s oldest musical instruments, it is also one of the most complicated. Comprised of thousands of pipes ranging in size from that of a small pencil to 32 feet in length, as well as innumerable internal mechanisms and electronic controls all managed by one musician at an equally complex (and appropriately named) “console” containing up to five separate keyboards. It takes a significant amount of training and dexterity to successfully maneuver these marvels of musical engineering.

When executed properly, the organist’s job is to make the technical operation of the instrument a behind-the-scenes process, secondary in nature to the music itself. The audience need not (and should not) be aware of every button that is pushed, every pipe that is activated, but rather these small adaptations should be incorporated into the whole in a subtle and organic way, a challenging objective that grows increasingly complex as the size of the instrument increases.

The Casavant organ at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bloor Street is one of largest such instruments in Canada, with over 7,500 pipes at the organist’s disposal; it is also one of the finest. Matthew Larkin Plays Casavant Opus 550 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Toronto illustrates just how magnificent and convincing a superb instrument can be in the hands of an equally gifted performer.

A fascinating collection of international works, including those by a number of notable Canadian composers, ensures that this double-disc offering has something for every listener. Whether it is Healey Willan’s Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2, Keith Jarrett’s Hymn of Remembrance, or César Franck’s legendary Chorale No.3, Larkin and the organ of St. Paul’s provide interpretations that rise above the technical challenges (both musical and material) presented by the pipe organ and enter the realm of the sublime.

With expertly crafted material spanning continents and centuries, this recording is highly recommended to all who have an interest in the organ, its history, and its music.

14 Paris la belle epoqueParis, La Belle Époque
Robert Langevin; Margaret Kampmeier
Bridge Records 9555 (bridge-records.com)

Robert Langevin, a native of Sherbrooke, Quebec has served as associate principal flute of the Montreal Symphony and, since 2000, principal flute of the New York Philharmonic. In this CD, he and pianist Margaret Kampmeier scintillate in ten delectable works composed during France’s “Belle Époque” (1871-1914), when Paris, rebounding after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, again became a leader of European arts and culture.

The luxuriantly liquid melodies of Charles-Marie Widor’s Suite, Op.34, offer a musical counterpart to the entrancing beauties of Monet’s celebrated, willow-draped lily pond in Giverny. Jules Mouquet’s three-movement La flûte de Pan, Op.15, depicts the nature-god cavorting with shepherds, birds and nymphs. The second movement, Pan et les oiseaux, is especially ravishing, as “ancient” modal melodies float over harp-like piano plinks and arpeggios.

Gabriel Fauré’s Fantaisie, Op.79 and Morceau de concours, the latter a sightreading test-piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire, are in Fauré’s familiar ambulatory, lyrically captivating style. George Enescu’s Cantabile et presto and Philippe Gaubert’s Nocturne et allegro scherzando were also composed for Conservatoire competitions. Both are very Fauré-like in character, as is Gaubert’s lovely Madrigal. Gaubert’s charming Fantaisie suggests the influence of Debussy, who closes this CD with two treasures of the flute repertoire, Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune (arranged for flute and piano) and Syrinx for solo flute.

Throughout, Langevin’s flute seems a living thing, a “magic flute” with a mellifluous voice and amazing acrobatic agility, yet always exquisitely graceful. Bravissimo!

15 Merz Trio InkInk
Merz Trio
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0148 (brightshiny.ninja)

Subtlety is the overarching quality that violinist Brigid Coleridge, cellist Julia Yang and pianist Lee Dionne – the Merz Trio – convey so luminously in the works of Vincent Scotto, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy interspersed between spoken words from Anna de Noailles, Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire and other writers. All of this comes together seamlessly in the trio’s extraordinary debut disc, Ink

The recitation often doesn’t raise its voice much above a whisper, and even when it does, the narratives and music are skilfully and intricately interwoven to maintain a certain expressive decorum. The trio alters spoken word, harmonies and structural elements with impressive restraint, heading in directions that surprise and captivate the ear.  

Most of the movements in the pieces presented here have a somewhat programmatic basis, though it isn’t always necessary to know the storyline to appreciate the result. Moreover, both written word and musical notes spring off the page and rise in graceful, elliptical arcs pirouetting in balletic movement. Just when you think that things couldn’t get any better than Lili Boulanger’s D’un vieux jardin, it is Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor that unfolds in a series of ethereal gestures, emerging in a panoply of colours and harmonic implications. Throughout, the Merz perform with consummate artistry, blending superior control and tonal lucidity with a breathtaking sense of line and motion.

16 Piano ProtagonistsPiano Protagonists – Music for Piano & Orchestra
Orion Weiss; The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein
Bridge Records 9547 (bridgerecords.com/collections/catalog-all)

All of the Piano Protagonists works are “firsts.” Erich Korngold’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp Major for One Hand (premiered 1924) was the first Paul Wittgenstein-commissioned left-handed piano concerto. It has one dramatic movement in the style of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, more complex than his later Violin Concerto. Its tough-minded, ceremonial character was appropriate for the commisioner/pianist Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. There are also tender-minded and mysterious moments in the middle section, Reigen (Round Dance – used ironically). Pianist Orion Weiss conveys these subtleties well. His technical mastery of massive octaves and chords, and of the lightning-fast burlesk section, never falters.

Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano” (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) for piano and orchestra first brought him to public attention. The variations’ intensity and freedom of piano ornamentation and passagework were striking, prefiguring his piano concertos. I particularly like the runs with double notes in Variation I, and the polonaise variation and finale demonstrating the composer’s celebrated style achieved in his teens.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor (1882-3) was a first for the non-pianist composer. An expert orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov plays to his strength in emphasizing piano-orchestra interplay over virtuosity. The wealth of musical invention applied to a simple Russian theme is what sustains this compact concerto. Weiss and The Orchestra Now under Leon Botstein convey the lively work’s spirit and its intricacies well.

History of the Russian Piano Trio Vol.1 (Alyabiev; Glinka; Rubinstein); Vol. 2 (Tchaikovsky; Pabst); Vol. 3 (Rimsky-Korsakov; Cui; Borodin); Vol. 4 (Arensky; Taneyev); Vol. 5 (Dyck; Sternberg; Youferov)
The Brahms Trio
Naxos 8.574112-6 (naxosdirect.com/search/8574112-6)

17a Russian Trios 1This History of the Russian Piano Trio is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly it brings together piano trios, some of which were rarely performed (if at all). Secondly it features works by composers such as Alexander Alyabiev who is all but forgotten, and Vladimir Dyck, who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz; and by others – Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin – better known for large-scale works. Moreover, the trios by Dyck, Sternberg and Youferov are world premieres. Most significantly these five discs (the first releases in a proposed series of 15 CDs) are a magnificent attempt to resurrect the nobility of classicism that is uniquely Russian and that came into being as the country itself was in the throes of defining its own nationalism. All of these reasons make the undertaking of such a musical task uniquely challenging, but judging by the sublime performances throughout it is an uncommonly successful one.

17b Russian Trios 2Most histories of Russian music are either written from a European perspective or with a Eurocentric bias in documenting events and achievements; something that you could hardly fault as the overarching influence – political and cultural – on Russian music came from outside its Western borders. But if the emancipation of the serfs was a political tipping point in Russian history and culture, it was the power of the so-called Big Five (Balakirev, Glinka, Cui, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov) that initiated the painting and sculpting of the significant landscape of a unique Russian musical character, quite apart from Western Europe; one which was later altered by the Russian Revolution, the horrors of Nazism, as well as the dénouement of Communism.

17c Russian Trios 3The character of Russian music may be influenced by, but is unlike anything in, Western Europe. It is music significantly “younger” than that of Europe, phenomenally Eurasian in its cultural construct, and echoes with elegant and sometimes rustic flavours that are special to Slavic and Russian literary and other (folk) cultural traditions. All of this, though ancient in many respects, came into being just over 200 or so years ago. And so, just as Russia adopted its unique script late in history, so did the music reflect these momentous changes, as if to bring to life its singular cultural topography. This is not only captured by the composers represented here by their work, but in large measure by this stellar ensemble: The Brahms Trio of Moscow. 

17d Russian Trios 4Violinist Nikolai Sachenko, cellist Kirill Rodin and pianist Natalia Rubinstein bring Alyabiev’s lost work magically alive before turning to Glinka’s Trio pathétique in D Minor and Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Trio in G Minor with orchestral intensity, playing white-hot in ensemble and soli. Tchaikovsky’s piano trio in A minor and Paul Pabst’s in A major, are delivered with power and uncommon élan. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Cui’s À Argenteau, Op.40, No.2 and Borodin’s Piano Trio in D Major are all superbly textured and delivered with delicate instrumental colouring and balance.

17e Russian Trios 5Arensky’s beautiful Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor and Taneyev’s masterful Trio in D Major are played with shimmering delicacy. The Brahms Trio imparts a power and tragic stature to the monumental architecture of Dyck’s turbulent Piano Trio in C Minor. Sternberg’s Trio No.3 in C Major is played with effortless distinction and Youferov’s Piano Trio in C Minor, with debonair virtuosity and aristocratic grace. It is not only thrilling to listen to these five discs one after the other, but also seems poetic justice that such characterful music should be literally brought to life by this spectacular contemporary Russian trio.

01 Clifford CrawleyClifford Crawley – Moods and Miniatures
Maureen Volk; Christine Carter; Michelle Cheramy; Beverley Diamond
Centrediscs CMCCD 28621 (centrediscs.ca)

“Cliff was a master of the miniature,” writes pianist Maureen Volk, Memorial University professor emeritus. This CD presents 39 of them, most under two minutes, one only 17 seconds! It begins, though, with the three-movement, 13-minute iPieces, composed for Volk in 2010. iOpener and iDeal feature Gershwinesque bluesiness and dreamy nostalgia; iDears is a perky succession of different dance rhythms and a Gershwinesque finishing flourish.

England-born Clifford Crawley (1929-2016) came to Canada in 1973 and taught at Queen’s University for 20 years. In 2002, he moved to St. John’s where his wife, pianist-ethnomusicologist Beverley Diamond, joined the Memorial University faculty. Volk writes, “My colleagues” – including this CD’s flutist Michelle Cheramy and clarinetist Christine Carter – “and I met a soft-spoken and generous man with a ready smile and a sly sense of humour who soon became a good friend. We also discovered a composer who had written a trove of wonderful music that deserves to be more widely known.”

Listening to Toccatas and Twelve Preludes for solo piano, Ten a Penny Pieces for clarinet and piano, pieces-of-eight for flute, clarinet and piano and Kalamalka for piano-duet (Volk and Diamond), I was often reminded of Poulenc who, like Crawley, enjoyed juxtaposing dancehall and circus music with poignant, melancholic lyricism. Crawley’s playful waltz, tango, polka and foxtrot rhythms, combined with his innate melodic gift, created music that was surely gladdening to compose and, for this listener, definitely gladdening to hear.

02a Linda Catlin SmithLinda Catlin Smith – Ballad
Apartment House
Another Timbre at176 (anothertimbre.com)

Barbara Monk Feldman – Verses
GBSR Duo with Mira Benjamin
Another Timbre at177 (anothertimbre.com)

New discs from two Canadian composers – Linda Catlin Smith and Barbara Monk Feldman – and both are standouts. They are the latest releases in the invaluable Canadian Composers Series from Another Timbre. As we’ve come to expect from this innovative British label, the sound is stellar and the performances, by some of Britain’s top contemporary music specialists, are consistently terrific. As well, there are some significant recording premieres here.

Like many composers on Another Timbre’s roster, Smith and Monk Feldman engage directly with 20th-century game-changers John Cage and Morton Feldman, so tempos are slow, dynamics are subdued and textures are spare. But Smith and Monk Feldman have distinctively personal voices. Smith, a dynamic presence on the Toronto new music scene, has developed an ardent  international following, while Monk Feldman remains the only Canadian woman composer to have had an opera, Pyramus and Thisbe, staged in the Canadian Opera Company’s main hall (inexcusably rare for a Canadian, even rarer – so even more inexcusable – for a woman). 

It was a recording of Smith’s music, Drifter, which launched the Canadian Composers Series in 2017. Ballad is now her fourth album for Another Timbre. She wrote the two works here for her brother, cellist Andrew Smith. In Through The Low Hills, from 1994, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and pianist Kerry Yong, both members of the much-fêted British ensemble, Apartment House, stylishly trace the twists and turns of Smith’s intriguing harmonic transformations. 

The title work, Ballad, is a lyrical, open-hearted, gorgeous, and, at 46 minutes, expansive work. Lukoszevieze and Yong listen to each other so intently that every phrase communicates eloquently.

02b Barbara Monk FeldmanMonk Feldman’s realm extends from the enchanted vistas of Duo for Piano and Percussion and the eerie mists of Verses for Vibraphone to the uplifting chorale-like contours of Clear Edge for solo piano.

The I And Thou, from 1988, is dedicated to Monk Feldman’s teacher and husband, Morton Feldman, who had died the previous year. Here she weaves a fabric of luminous stillness. Yet beneath the shimmering surface an uneasy presence stirs, unarticulated but palpable, especially with pianist Siwan Rhys’ sensitivity to the mood of longing that suffuses this moving work.

Monk Feldman has written that The Northern Shore, a trio for percussion, piano, and violin, takes inspiration from the landscape of the Gaspé region of Quebec. Reflecting such an immense expanse, this work is the longest here. And it covers a vast expressive territory, from precisely shaped and positioned tones to an unexpectedly effulgent passage of delicate piano chords marked “freely”. The responsiveness of percussionist George Barton and pianist Rhys is beautifully matched by the imaginative palette of colours from Canadian violinist Mira Benjamin (a member of Apartment House).

03 Francois TousignantMusic of François Tousignant
Myriam Leblanc; Catherine St-Arnaud; Vincent Ranallo; Ensemble Paramirabo
Centrediscs CMCCD 28821 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-28821)

The varied career of François Tousignant (1955-2019) included music critic for Le Devoir (1994-2005), Radio-Canada columnist, professor at Universities of Ottawa and Montreal, and composer of over 40 works. In commemoration of the second anniversary of his death, this double-disc release features a memorable tribute concert recording of Montreal-based instrumental Ensemble Paramirabo, with three guest vocalists, brilliantly performing eight of his chamber pieces from 1973 to 1987.

The first disc features five earlier compositions. Lyrical colourful solo Conflits (1973) has artistic director/flutist Jeffrey Stonehouse musically perform the long meditative phrases with alternating high and lower pitches. It is also an introduction to Tousignant’s widespread compositional tool of attention-grabbing silent breaks between phrases. Quatre incantations (1974) is another easy-to-listen-to early work, with wide-ranging soprano Myriam Leblanc vocals set to Tousignant text answering pianist Pamela Reimer’s clear melodies and well-placed occasional atonalities.  (1975), set to a Charles Baudelaire text, is an intelligently contemplated atonal yet never dense work, featuring cello (Viviana Gosselin) and flute (Stonehouse) plucks, detached notes, and trills and slides, magnetic tape effects (Tousignant) and baritone Vincent Ranallo’s low mysterious singing and closing shining laughter. More atonality and large silent breaks in the alternating crashing and reflective piece Anatole, sans paroles (1982) for cello and piano. Reimer’s virtuosic solo performance Sonate pour clavecin (1983) features a multitude of contemporary harpsichord effects.

The second album features three later works. Virtuosic contemporary Histoire (1984) opens with Reimer’s contemplative piano detached notes and Charlotte Layec’s held, reflective, clarinet notes. Shifts in mood, like loud piano ringing notes and clarinet swells and changes in articulation, create a slow, sad and occasional explosive mood.  (1986) is set to a Rainer Maria Rilke poem. Violinist Hubert Brizard and soprano Catherine St-Arnaud perform this very contemporary piece with atonalities, string vibrations, vocal high held notes and spoken words, and more Tousignant compelling “what’s next” silences between phrases. The closing Trois paysages proustiens (1987) is considered Tousignant’s most famous work – set to words by Marcel Proust. Reimer and St-Arnaud are joined by percussionist David Therrien Brongo. Longer abstract percussion and piano atonalities, spoken/sung vocals, shorter mood section and silent breaks abound.

Understandably, Tousignant did not compose during his years as the music critic. His output reflects a composer with modern atonal technique, clear delicate lyrical scoring and respect for the written word. 

 

04 Lemay EtudesRobert Lemay – Cinq Études for Alto Saxophone
Jean-François Guay
Centrestream CMCCT 11621 (cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmcct-11621)

Our world of streaming media has a few benefits including how the creation and distribution of music projects is less expensive and simpler than a decade or two ago. This ease of production makes niche products more accessible and an excellent example is Cinq études for alto saxophone by Robert Lemay (commissioned and exquisitely performed by Jean-François Guay). 

The five movements total just 18 minutes and Cinq études is released as a stand-alone digital offering. While Cinq études works as a concert piece, its unique purpose is to demonstrate different playing techniques, including double and triple tonguing, multiphonics, altissimo, rapid register changes and subtones. These techniques are heard in most contemporary saxophone works, but can pass by so quickly we may miss identifying them. Doublez ou triplez la mise is a great demonstration of double and triple tonguing which Guay performs cleanly and with verve, while Additions & multiplications has some subtle and quiet melodic lines leading into some excellent multiphonic work. 

The liner notes state: “Each piece is a tribute to a great saxophonist/pedagogue: Marcel Mule, Jean-Marie Londeix, Eugene Rousseau, Frederick Hemke and Daniel Deffayet.” I am surprised the altissimo section is not dedicated to Sigurd M. Rascher whose Top Tones for the Saxophone (which I purchased decades ago) is a standard in saxophone literature. This small quibble aside, Cinq études is worth a listen for its inventive and musical demonstration of multiple techniques.

05 Nexus So PercussionSteve Reich
Nexus; Sō Percussion
Nexus 11042 (nexuspercussion.com)

A collaboration between two leading percussion groups, veteran Toronto-based Nexus and younger-generation New York-based Sō Percussion, this album features four percussion-centred scores by American composer Steve Reich. 

Reich’s music is generally characterized by repetition, canons, slow harmonic changes and, for a time, the adoption of selected musical notions from West Africa and Indonesia. By the mid-1960s Reich sought to create music in which his compositional process was clearly discernible by the audience in the music itself. From 1965 to 1971, his style was dominated by a process called “phasing,”  a kind of Escher-like perceptual magic where incremental changes to the music being performed are revealed to the listener in real time.

All those compositional and performative approaches deeply colour the brilliantly performed music on this album: Clapping Music (1972), Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973), Mallet Phase (2016, based on Piano Phase 1967), and Quartet (2013). The first three, controversial in their day, have become contemporary standards. , a jazz-inflected work scored for two vibraphones and two pianos, is an outlier in this program. Reich called it “one of the more complex [pieces] I have composed.” While frequently shifting key and continuity by restlessly changing metres, the outer sections maintain a pulsed momentum, a recognizable link to Reich’s earlier compositions. In stark contrast, the middle slow movement introduces chordal harmonies unusual in his music, evoking a peaceful, pensive mood.

This is Nexus’ 31st commercial album release – and a resounding way to celebrate both its 50th anniversary and its deep and enduring relationship with Reich.

06 Ofer PelzOfer Pelz – Trinité
Meitar Ensemble; Quatuor Ardeo
New Focus Recordings FCR303 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Intricate prepared-piano ricochets and barbed ensemble alchemy converge to permeate the Meitar Ensemble’s latest release – a portrait of music by Montreal-based Israeli composer Ofer Pelz. The five pieces on the disc represent an eight-year collaboration between the composer and the virtuosic ensemble. 

Pelz’s clear and punctuated sound world is well suited for the bravura and precision of intent capable by the Meitar musicians. The first work, Backward inductions, for augmented piano, evokes a process whereby reverse reasoning achieves a sequence of optimal actions. This dynamic music produces fluidity through compartmentalized yet spinning lines and tempestuous interruptions. A piece titled Convergence for alto flute and electronics is a wondrous barrage of granulated tinctures that envelopes the ear and the mind. The chamber work, marchons, marchons, performed in Toronto when New Music Concerts presented Meitar at the Music Gallery in 2017, offers delicate and distant conversations spoken in metallic whispers. Finally, a piece written in two movements for flute, prepared piano and amplified string quartet titled Blanc sur Blanc begins with a dance-like mysteriousness followed by windswept panorama. 

The confident nature of Pelz’s music is propelled forward by what is clearly a process-oriented approach – yet this attribute also contains a wealth of originality and expression. The music and performances on this release are as compelling as they are refreshing. Bravo to all.

Listen to 'Ofer Pelz – Trinité' Now in the Listening Room

07 Peter GilbertPeter Gilbert – Burned into the Orange
Arditti Quartet; Iridium Quartet; Various Artists
New Focus Recordings FCR300 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Composer Peter Gilbert’s second full-length album – Burned into the Orange – is a collection of chamber works that explore rich and sensuous textures performed by the Arditti Quartet, Camilla Hoitenga, Magdalena Meitzner, Jeremias Schwarzer, Richard White, Michael Veit, Emanuele Arciuli and the Iridium Quartet. 

The seemingly ever-rising pulsation of the voice opens wide to forget that which you are singing produces an ephemeral hypnosis. The title track, scored for saxophone quartet, evokes sonic tendrils creeping among the sinuousness of a liquid cathedral. The almost violent gestures of Channelling the Waters produces a musical energy that tunnels through unknown timbral pathways. A piece titled By the Lonely Traveller’s Call, for tuba and amplified mute, transduces extreme guttural bellows into resonant sonic clouds. The lingering harmonic canopies of Soon as the Sun Forsook the Eastern Main evaporate monumental piano sonorities into monoliths of aural brilliance. 

This album is saturated with aural enchantment – each piece seems to be on a journey from unaltered impetus to transcendent harmoniousness. Burned into the Orange will surely burn into memory for those who listen.

Listen to 'Peter Gilbert – Burned into the Orange' Now in the Listening Room

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